Tuesday, Jan 20, Barack Hussein Obama — the USA’s first African-American president — was sworn in as the 44th president on the west steps of the Capitol, a building that symbolizes freedom but was erected by those who had none. Living in nearby huts, hundreds of African-American slaves worked seven days a week to build the U.S. Capitol. They felled trees to clear the site. They sawed logs and molded bricks. They quarried stone for the Corinthian columns. As many as 800 slaves at one time worked there.
Though Obama himself has no known slaves among his ancestors, he stood to take the oath of office with three family members who do: his wife and two daughters. Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandfather worked in slavery on a South Carolina rice plantation before being freed during the Civil War.
When slaves were helping to build the Capitol and the White House there might have been a flutter of hope somewhere that someday America would live out the true meaning of its creation. Now it has happened.
Obama took the oath of office, placing his left hand on the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used when he took the same oath in 1861. Back then, the nation was descending into civil war over slavery. Today, the new president faces economic challenges unmatched in generations, two wars abroad, and the continuing threat of terrorism at home. His inauguration speech, delivered right after the oath focused on two themes: responsibility and restoring public confidence.
Though not descended from slaves, President Obama carries with him the special hopes and pride of those who are. Obama, alone among the candidates, recognized the profound desire for change early in the campaign. His opposition to the Iraq war from the start gave him that initial boost, and when the economy began to crater, that sealed it.
To elect a black man of exotic heritage and name voters privileged their own pain and anxiety over voting for an African-American. Obviously, they had to conclude that he was much better than Republican nominee John McCain and voted in that respect.
After winning the election with 53 percent of the vote, Obama entered the Oval Office with a high level of public confidence in his ability to deal with the nation’s problems. The latest Pew Research Center poll shows 79 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Obama, including 59 percent of Republicans. The Pew research also shows most Americans see Obama as a problem-solver, and a "uniter."
Thus, at present, a country left bitter, fearful and divided by eight years of George W Bush’s presidency, welcomed him with relief and expectation. The world, which had viewed America with growing alarm during these years, tuned in to Obama as well. 47-year-old Obama who rode on a ticket for change certainly represents hope that America would manage its own house responsibly and favour consensus and cooperation while dealing with the world.
His commitment to consultative governance while being firmly in charge, and the A-list team he has picked, would hopefully serve America and the world well. Hopefully, Obama proves that History is not made by the colour of ones skin, but rather by the content of one’s character.
No doubt, to have a black man inaugurated in a house built by slaves has been a remarkable, poignant, and hopeful moment in the life of the people of United States of America.